Saturday, May 30, 2009


I was in Cape Girardeau this past week holding hearings. One of my Wednesday cases involved a fellow who had worked as a deckhand on the river. Questioning someone about their past work is one of my favorite parts of a hearing. I almost always learn something new and the claimant usually enjoys telling me about work they were good at and generally enjoyed. Having never before lived adjacent to a major waterway I have a lot to learn about work on the river.

Tuesday evening Merry and I walked along the waterfront at Cape. The downtown drops steeply to a riverside rail line backed by a high flood wall. The wall completely blocks the street view of the river. The town has tried to remedy this ugly situation by having the flood wall in downtown covered with interesting murals that depict important events in Cape history. At the foot of certain streets, however, the flood wall is open to the river. These openings can be closed by flood gates. To our surprise the flood gate at the foot of Themis St. was closed. The Broadway gate a block away was open.

People out walking the dog or taking an evening stroll gravitate to the river bank. The river was pretty high on Tuesday leaving only about 15 feet of walkway at Broadway narrowing to none at Themis where it was up to the flood gate. It's hard to imagine the power of the Mississippi. There are no rapids or waves or sound of running water to speak of but the current was silently rushing past carrying large branches and tree trunks. About a half mile downstream we could see the modern Cape bridge spanning about a half mile wide river.

A large barge was very slowly making its way up stream against the current. None of the other strollers seemed to pay it much attention.

The next day I took the deckhand's testimony. I learned there are four basic types of work on towboats: the pilots to navigate, deckhands to wrestle the load, engineers to manage the massive diesel engines, and the cook's staff to feed them all. Towboats push a fleet of barges that are lashed together with heavy one inch steel cables. Crew members work around the clock in six hour shifts, called watches, for thirty days straight, then have thirty days off. Towboats run 365 days a year.

Even though the raft of barges are always pushed by the boat they are still called “tow” boats. According to Wikipedia the term developed on American rivers post Civil War. When steamboat fortunes began to decline steamboats began to "tow" wooden barges alongside to earn additional revenue. Even long after boats began pushing barges the term stuck. In the rest of the world they are called pushboats.

Half of a deckhand's time is taken up doing routine maintenance on the boat: cleaning, scraping, painting and such. The other half of the time a deckhand deals with the load. This means loading the barges, usually with coal, gravel, wheat or other bulky items, lashing the barges together to form the load, and breaking down the load periodically so the whole thing will fit through the giant locks on the upper Mississippi, the Ohio or along the Inland Waterways.

When Merry and I met up in the evening she told me she had visited the waterfront again and noticed a guy standing there with luggage. She talked with him and found out he is a towboat pilot. After a little while a small boat put off from a towboat mid-river and came over to pick him up. As Merry watched them return to the towboat, the little runabout lost power, started drifting and ultimately had to be assisted by the Coast Guard who just happened to be passing by at the time.

Back at the hotel I wandered down to the bar for happy hour. There I met a young guy who works as an engineer on the river. He had driven up to Cape the night before to meet his boat. He told me that every river worker was assigned a “home port.” Getting to work meant reaching your home port at a specified date and time. From there the shipping company is responsible for getting you to your boat whether by van, taxi or even by air. This guy usually works only downstream from Cape, traveling to New Orleans then to Port Arthur, TX to unload and back again. He said he could do two round trips like this in 30 days. When the boat runs low on fuel he calls a tender and is refueled midstream. He said the engines never get cold, except at an occasional dry dock servicing. As with trucking, towboats try to get back loads for the trip up-river, but in these harder economic times they are mostly coming back riding high and empty.

The next day Merry and Joli visited Trail of Tears State Park where she was able to get a vantage point to get some terrific shots of towboats.

The internet has a lot more information on this subject. Of course, the towboat operators have a professional association called American Waterways Operators with a lot of information about jobs on towboats that you can visit at

The waterways themselves are policed by the Coast Guard but under the management of the Army Corps of Engineers. There is a pretty interesting propaganda video about the importance of river transportation made by the Corps that you can watch at

Best of all are the web sites of amateur towboat enthusiasts. I recommend you look at two of the very best: Towboat Joe at and Dick's Towboat Gallery with photos of over 1200 individual towboats at

Saturday, May 23, 2009


A week ago last Wednesday we started to cross the American prairie from Limon, CO. We drove out of the Colorado mountains the evening before. Limon is just a bit too far from Pike's Peak to see the mountain. We had crossed about 75 miles of the treeless great plains before stopping at dark.

From Limon it is almost 100 miles on I-70 to the Kansas border. We pulled into the Kansas welcome center about 9:00 am. The wind off the mountains was so strong it nearly swept us off our feet. Little sand grains got in my eyes and my cap blew off. A genuine tumbleweed got stuck under the driver's door. The rolling land is farmed as far as the eye can see. We collected a bag of brochures about the wonders of Kansas and our free Kansas sunflower seeds and set off again. The wind blew hard all day.

We were resigned to crossing most of Kansas on I-70. The distances are just too great to use the back roads. Three hours of non-stop driving brought us to Hays. This little city of about 20,000 appears to be the business center of northwestern Kansas. Off I-70 strip malls stretch toward the town center for a mile or so. We headed for the downtown in hopes of finding some regional cuisine. I couldn't help but notice the German heritage of the place: street names, brick architecture and a big sign announcing “the German Capital of Kansas.” Main Street downtown was mostly deserted. We pulled up to a department store that has been converted into a number of small shops. Inside the old-fashioned Soda Shop offered a daily special soup, green bean with dumplings. The special sandwich was blue cheese sliders. Just what we needed.

An hour more on I-70 and we were getting pretty tired of the interstate driving. Merry was leafing through the literature we got at the welcome station looking for an alternative. At Wilson we got off and started to follow the “Post Rock” Scenic By-way.

When white settlers arrived on the prairies in the mid-nineteenth century they wanted to put fences around their farms, something that never occurred to indigenous people. The problem with this plan was that there's a lot of space to fence and virtually no trees for fence posts. All of Kansas, however has vast deposits of limestone just under the surface. Some of this stone was found to be quite soft and workable when quarried, but then hardens when exposed to the air. Thus there are now large areas of farmland encircled by wire fences with stone fence posts that have been there for a long time.

Traveling north from Wilson we not only saw thousands of stone fence posts but signs for “The Garden of Eden.” When we turned toward Lucas, we had no idea of what we would find. On a back street of the little town that calls itself the “Grassroots Arts Capital” we found the amazing homestead of civil war veteran, S.P. Dinsmoor. This concrete jungle gym completed in 1907 can't be described in a few words, but take a look at Merry's picture for an idea.

We decided to head for Manhattan, KS on a back road. KS 18 is an arrow leading from one set of grain elevators to the next, each eight to ten miles off. For many miles out of Lucas we were surprised by occasional large metal creatures along the roadside sculpted from scrap. When these ran out I was ready for some new amusement. Shortly after a county line I noticed that every crossing road was named with single syllable four letter word. “Barn” was the first one I saw. A little later I glimpsed “Deer'” then “Gate.” I mentioned this to Merry and we started to pay attention. “Hail” road was followed by “Iris.” We now surmised that the county had named each road in alphabetical order. We made a game of trying to guess the next road name, then at the letter Y we reached the county line.

We finally pulled into Manhattan bone tired. The wind was still blowing.

Fairly early the next morning we drove to the 3500 acre Konza Prairie Biological Station on the outskirts of Manhattan. This area of Kansas is called the Flint Hills because the limestone contains outcroppings of harder stone that made the area very difficult to plow and which eroded into unique bluff-like hills. The Flint Hills stretch from Nebraska to Oklahoma and contain the largest expanse of unplowed tallgrass prairie. We walked a six mile trail at Konza and saw many unique wildflowers, bison, school kids, a short horned lizard, and prairie birds including a strikingly red summer tanager. We met a woman who helped do a controlled burn of the grass just a few weeks earlier. “That all went up in a whirlwind of fire in four minutes,” she said gesturing at about 200 acres. Already the grass and flowers were six inches high where the prairie had been burned. Standing on a ridge here, surrounded by open prairie, it's easy to imagine what this country looked like 200 or 2000 years ago. Only 4% of the estimated 140 million acres of original prairie survive.

To get a better feel for the Flint Hills and to get some lunch we drove south on a back road to Council Grove. The Santa Fe Trail passed through this archetypal midwestern small town. We had a good lunch at the Hays House on Main Street. Build in 1857 the Hays House doesn't exactly line up with the modern street. When built it was oriented to the Santa Fe Trail.

Twenty miles on south through grasslands, and more grasslands, with virtually no other traffic, we came to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This is the heart of Chase County, the center of the center of the country, all prairie except for two small towns, immortalized by William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth.

There is little wind today. Standing on the prairie the sun and sky totally surrounds us. As dusk approaches small birds appear. The air smells of grass and dust.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Taos Pueblo

I first visited Taos Pueblo in 1971. I was captivated by the feeling of the place and by the people who have roots there. When Merry and I visited last Sunday I expected the passage of 38 years to have effected major changes in the place. I was wrong. There is a new road to serve the modest new casino and a new community office at the entrance to the village. The ancient pueblo buildings are in slightly better condition than I remembered. Otherwise the place seems unchanged.

To reach Taos Pueblo you drive a few miles north of the artsy village of Taos then a few miles back the road that leads to Taos Mountain. Last weekend this road through dusty sage brush was partly lined by blooming sand plum and choke cherry trees nearer the creek banks. A few miles after passing the casino the road comes to the traditional village where all cars are directed to a small dirt parking lot. All visitors pay a $10 fee to enter and an additional $5 fee for a camera.

The entire village is made of adobe, surrounded by an adobe wall. Red Willow Creek cuts through the middle of the village which is arranged around a large packed earth plaza the same color as the buildings. Multiple story ancient buildings lie on both the north and south sides of the creek. These older buildings have been continuously occupied for more than 1000 years. Every year the adobe has been renewed. Numerous small adobe houses are scattered about. Some seem occupied, some not. The west side of the plaza is dominated by a beautiful church. Tours are offered, but we decided to explore on our own. Tourists are pretty much restricted to the immediate area of the plaza, and no climbing to the upper levels of the pueblo is allowed. The doors to about a dozen houses with items to sell are open to visitors, some in the main structures, some in small outlying buildings.

We were attracted to a one room house with a covered porch. This is the house of Kalbatu White Wolff, a jeweler. He has two tables of nicely made necklaces composed of hishi and silver beads. Hishi are small beads of stone, shell or coral. As soon as we approached he began a fast patter of stories about the pueblo and his family history. He invited us into the 10' x 10' house. He told us his grandfather had owned the house, but that it was much older. His grandfather put in the door and a very small window. Before those modern renovations the house could only be entered by ladder through a hole in the roof. A small cone shaped adobe fireplace was fit into the east corner, made by molding adobe around a tree trunk then removing the tree. He told us he inherited the house, but because the deed was lost he had to petition the tribe for a new one. His case was unusual since he claimed ownership not only to the house but the open porch area that normally would be tribal land, as was all unenclosed land. He was lucky. We purchased one of his necklaces. A few new people approached. He started his patter over at the beginning. We walked on.

The day was clear and just starting to heat up. We walked the length of the north building then crossed the spring full creek on a log bridge. There seem to be more detached houses on the south side, arranged around narrow alleys. At the back of one of these alleys a door was open. I glanced in but saw no one. I called out “hello.” A voice behind a curtained door invited us in. This two room house is the shop and studio of Meko Concha, a potter. A few shelves held some bowls and a half dozen small bear sculptures. I was immediately attracted to the bears. He explained his process of finely screening the micaceous clay he works with. I picked up one of the bears. “Is that one speaking to you?” An 8x10 black and white photo on the wall that looked exactly like Mr. Concha turned out to be his grandfather. The three of us talked for a long time about the politics of native culture. Events from the past two hundred years seem totally present to him. He explained that some of the proceeds from the casino were being used to repurchase the 5 miles in every direction, centered on the Pueblo church, that the Spanish granted to his people. They now own about 100,000 acres including Taos Mountain and the entire Red Willow Creek watershed. “Land and water are politics in New Mexico.”

Outside again the day was heating up. We walked past a line of traditional beehive shaped bread ovens called “hornos.” Dogs slowly shifted from one shadowy spot to a cooler one. We crossed the creek again and entered the 1850 churchyard of San Geronomo. Small bouquets of fresh flowers graced each windowsill inside the cool dark church. The altar is crowded with very old wooden statuary called “santos,” the largest of which represents the Virgin Mary. On this day the santos were each carefully wrapped in pink organza, except for the statue of Jesus. On one side of the altar sits an empty casket, also draped in pink. Native american Catholic churches contain these caskets as a reminder of how the Spanish converted them to christian funeral practices. By the altar rail commemorative candles flickered. We sat in a front pew of the empty church to take it all in. Without saying anything to me Merry got up, went to the rail, lit a candle then came back and took my hand with tears in her eyes. I was overcome with grief. The night before I learned that my mother had died. Here on Mother's Day in a church of a religion that I do not follow the reality of the situation crashed on me and I cried.

We sat there in memory a little while. A man from the village came in to replenish the supply of candles. The spell was broken. Outside again the clear light was blinding. We smiled at a tour guide gathering her charges. Taos is timeless in a way you can only know by standing in its plaza. I smiled. I was glad I had returned. The bear now standing on our mantle in St. Louis reminds us of the day.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Hello from Albuquerque, NM. Yesterday afternoon I rendezvoused with Merry at the airport and now we're sitting at Fred & Mary Upshall's dining room table. Fred's an ALJ here who I met at training last summer. We've been sharing stories about our first year as judges. One odd thing we both noticed was how little our new colleagues seemed to care about our social adjustment to a new city. Had we joined a new law firm we would have been shown around and invited to social events. At ODAR there is almost none of this.

My experience in St. Louis was a little different than Fred's here, because of Jane Lanser.

Every Social Security hearing is electronically recorded. The recording itself is performed by independent contractors called “hearing monitors” who are paid a set amount per hearing. Many of the hearing monitors are retired Social Security clerks who are very familiar with the process. The ALJs have no say in who is scheduled as their monitor, but the cadre is small, so it's easy to become familiar with the unique personalities of every monitor.

I met Jane during my first week at St. Louis ODAR. Jane worked at SSA for many years before retiring and taking up the hearing monitor job. She has a government pension but does the monitor job part-time as a source of “mad money.” Jane has lived a long time in St. Louis. She really, really loves the place and seems determined for me to see it through her eyes.

I have Jane as my monitor about once a week. Every time she's in my court she brings me guidebooks, magazines, flyers, newspaper clippings, handouts, and books that she believed will help me understand all that St. Louis has to offer. If I should happen to express an interest in any particular subject she will search her vast archives and produce relevant material for my review. Her archives are impressive. For example when I was writing the entry on Bevo, Jane showed up with a book on the Busch family and even old newspapers related to the family.

Over time Jane has become my principal guide to all things St. Louis. Jane has informed me in detail on every St. Louis cultural institution. She consistently provides me with insider information on how to get the most out of the many free concerts, Shakespeare in the Park and the free seats at the Muny (a summer outdoor professional theatre in Forest Park). When I was seeking a good restaurant she provided a recent list of the 30 best. One day she brought a magazine article with the 100 things ever St. Louis citizen should see or do. She is an awesome history buff but she loves two things above all else: the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Cardinals.

This last Thursday there was an afternoon home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The game started at 1:00, my hearings ended at 12:30. Busch Stadium is only four blocks from the hearing office. Jane was my monitor. I immediately knew she was planning to attend the game. She showed up for work in a “Cardinal” red dress with matching red blazer. Each lapel sported an enameled Cardinals pin. She wore earrings shaped like small baseballs with Cardinals in the center. Her tote sported the Cardinals logo done in cross stitch. Her handbag looked like a zippered fuzzy baseball about the size of a basketball. When I left work at about 3:30 the game was just getting out. The Cards won. I spotted Jane, her gray hair hidden under a Cardinals cap, in the celebrating crowd streaming out of the park. Her dress was distinctive, but every fan had their own bright red outfit. Downtown was awash in a sea of red. I waved to Jane across the street.

Jane also reports to me on every Symphony concert. She was particularly enraptured by the recent appearance of Nadia Solerno-Sonenberg. She also introduced us to the fine community orchestra at Webster University in which her daughter-in-law has played for many years.

Thanks to Jane our move has been enriched and we feel more at home.

On another note, I'd like to thank everyone who responded to last week's posting on cognitive surplus. I must have accidently hit on a topic with resonance. To clarify, I did not mean to suggest that TV never be used for entertainment, nor did I mean to suggest that if everyone turned off the TV that there would be a huge increase in Wikipedia entries. Thanks to everyone who wrote back. I plan to do more with that piece when I get the chance.

Now, off on our drive back to St. Louis.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cognitive surplus

At every Social Security hearing I typically ask the claimant to tell me how he or she spends the majority of their waking hours. The point is to discover what activities the person actually does and match that, if possible, to the objective evidence of their impairments. In the vast majority of cases the person reports they spend anywhere from 6 to 15 hours per day in front of the television. I sometimes ask what shows they watch, but most cannot recall. I follow up by asking if they “do” something else during the day, but most seem too believe watching TV qualifies as doing something. I don't agree.

Since I don't believe that passive, mindless TV viewing constitutes doing anything, I persist in asking about other activities like house cleaning, pets, hobbies and such. Second and third on the list of activities these questions solicit are reading (usually the Bible) and playing on my computer (almost always games). In time spent per day nothing comes close to the time spent before the TV set.

I'm horrified that someone would come to the belief that watching TV constitutes an activity and that it's acceptable to “do” it for hours on hours daily. The sad fact is that even non-disabled people in America watch a lot of TV every day. According to the 2006 Nielson survey the average American watches 4 hours and 35 minutes of television each day.
 99% of all American homes have at least one TV, in fact, only 19% have just one. 50% of American homes have three working televisions or more. In 1975 only 11% had more than three TVs and 57% had only one.

So it's socially acceptable to watch a lot of TV. I'm convinced that many people also use TV as a sort of sedative, essentially a pain medication akin to hypnotism. TV by design distracts people from their everyday existence. For a person with problems, distraction is not only good, but necessary. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to entertainment. I know that there are at least a few good shows on TV that provide quality entertainment. What I'm puzzling about here is not the person who turns on the TV with a specific goal, say to watch a sports event or a favorite show.

What would happen, I have to wonder, if people did not have the ability to use TV as a mindless time waster? I assume they would do something else to distract themselves. Some would read, some would find a hobby within their capacity, some go for a walk.

This leads me to the conclusion that TV is actually increasing the amount of physical and mental disability in America. People in general don't enjoy suffering and will do what they can to avoid thinking about their problems and pains. If there were no TV at least some substantial number of people would do something else with their time. I believe at least some percentage of this time would be used productively.

As proof of this assertion I offer Wikipedia. It has been calculated that the current state of Wikipedia took a collective 100 Million hours to create. No one paid for any of this work or even solicited people to do the work except in the most general way. Yet there it is, a 21st Century electronic encyclopedia that is actually pretty reliable, created by folks in their spare time.

Some have dubbed this internet phenomenon “cognitive surplus.” The concept is that people as a whole have a lot of time in the day where they are not actively using their minds to do anything remotely productive. For example this weekend Americans will spend 100 Million hours watching TV ads alone. If we all gave up watching just the ads we could create 50 Wikipedias or their equivalent a year.

I admit to being prejudiced in this area. When we moved to St. Louis I completely gave up TV. I don't miss it much. I admit my use of the internet has increased for things like checking the weather and to watch selected parts of the Daily Show. Even when I do have the chance to watch, I generally choose not to do so. Recently we did retrieve our TV from Syracuse, but only so we could watch movies.

So join me and kill your TV, or at least strangle it a little. and